Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 6, 2017

The end of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Filed under: International Affairs,Saudi Arabia — Razib Khan @ 6:49 pm

The most important thing happening in the world that is different this week from last week from what I can tell is that the the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is going “full Ishmael” on us. By this I mean the reference in the Hebrew Bible to Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, and the legendary ancestor of the Arabs: “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him….”

What’s going on now? As you know there seems to be an internal purge going on, and a centralization of power around the Crown Prince. This, after the rollback of the power of the religious establishment.

Externally the quagmire in Yemen continues, and the Saudi state is now becoming more belligerent toward both Iran and Lebanon.

Most of you probably know the general issues about why the Saudi state is attempting to change and reform. Though petroleum will remain important for plastics and jet fuel, it is quite possible that the proportion used for gasoline will decline with the rise of electric cars. Additionally, there seem more supply-side possibilities with fracking technologies.

But perhaps the biggest factors are demographic. Over ten years ago Peter Turchin wrote a paper, Scientific Prediction in Historical Sociology: Ibn Khaldun meets Al Saud. It’s pretty useful in understanding what’s going on right now. The big issue which Turchin talks about more generally and is relevant to Saudi Arabia is elite overproduction. The Royal House is highly fecund. And all the scions demand unsustainable leisured lives….

September 3, 2017

Rohingya unmasking complexity in a world we want simple

Filed under: Burma,International Affairs,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 9:00 pm

There is currently a major humanitarian crisis in Burma as Rohingya Muslims flee conflict between the military and separatist militants. Obviously this is a developing story. Unfortunately, very few in the West and the media have a well developed understanding of the history of Burma. Therefore the easiest framework is something worthy of a DC superhero film: there is the good, and there is the bad.

Just because such black and white dichotomies tend to collapse complexity doesn’t mean they are wrong. In World War II the Nazis were the bad. But details are often illuminating and informative. The Soviet Union was on the side against the Nazis, but it wasn’t exactly a “good” actor. Similarly, Finland at points made common cause with Nazi Germany, but that was less about its affinity with Hitler’s regime and more about surviving a Soviet invasion. There are people who are good and bad. But there are also people in situations, which dictate actions which are bad, or enable actions which seem good. (and a mix)

If you want a broader view of mainland Southeast Asian history, which Burma plays a large part in, I’d recommend Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. Unlike Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia and Egypt), Indonesia, and much of the Middle East (Iran and Turkey excepted), mainland Southeast Asia developed nation-states organically. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, were not dreamed up by European colonialists, but evolved through their own historical logic (in this case, the migration out of southern China of Tai peoples and the response of the older Southeast Asian polities, being the central narrative thread).

The only book about Burma’s history I’ve read is The River of Lost Footsteps. It has a lot of personal detail, as the author is himself a member of the Burmese Diaspora, and seems to come from an elite family with many connections the people who have run the country since independence.

In The River of Lost Footsteps the author alludes to the fact that Burma in the early modern period was on the edge of Islamicate civilization. At its peak the Mughal Empire had within its penumbra the Burmese polity, and it was impossible for the latter not to be influenced by the former (the influence actually pre-dates the Mughals, though intensified with them). The Buddhist kings of Arakan styled themselves sultans, and employed Muslims of Indian (or West and Central Asian) origin in their armies.

The descendants of these soldiers are part of the story of Islam in Burma. Too often the media representations of Islam in Burma reduce them to the Rohingya. The reality is that there are several Muslim communities within Burma, with different relationships to the majority Theravada Buddhist ethnicities. The River of Lost Footsteps claims that Aung San Suu Kyi herself (or more precisely her father) is in part from a family whose ancestry includes some of these Muslim soldiers.

Aung San Suu Kyi of course is at the heart of current events right now. Many are confused as to why this person, who has put her life on the line to defend the rights of self-determination of the Burmese people in the past, will not speak up for the Rohingya now. To a great extent this reminds me of the Lewis’ trilemma in relation to Jesus, that he was either a liar, lord, or lunatic. For many of us the answer may not be any of the above. Aung San Suu Kyi is a complex person at the heart of complex events. It was easy to portray her as a selfless saint, who was always on the side of the good as we understand it, but current events show that she was never immune to the exigencies of reality and practicality. Just as she was not saint in the past, I doubt she is a monster in the present, even if she has become caught up in events of monstrosity. Remember, if Gandhi was alive today he would surely be excoriated for his lack of solidarity with other people of color at least, and his racism at most.

Stepping aside from Aung San Suu Kyi, I think it is no surprise that democratization of Burmese society and culture has been occurring while there has been a rise in aggressive Buddhist chauvinism. Americans often do not want to admit that democratization and liberal tolerance do not go hand and hand. In places like China, and yes, Burma, authoritarian governments likely keep a lid on ethnic tensions because they are destabilizing for the public order. It was with universal white male suffrage in the United States that the racialized character of the American republic became much more explicit. Similarly, popular nationalism in Europe was associated with drives toward homogeneity and assimilation of subordinate groups.

Why are the Rohingya so hated in Burma? There are several possible reasons:

– They are racially distinct (all the photographs make it clear that they are not physically different from Bengali peasants) from most of the other ethnicities in Burma (including some groups of Muslims who descend from intermarriages with the Bamar majority).

– Their Muslim religion is very distinct from that of the dominant culture in Burma, Theravada Buddhism. Unlike China, where Buddhism is a strand within the national culture (and not a dominant one), in Burma Buddhism occupies the role that Christianity does in Northern Europe: the religion’s arrival was associated with the rise of complex societies, and political self-awareness. Though the Theravada Buddhism of Burma has local flavors (nat worship), it unites many of the disparate ethno-linguistic groups together, from the majority Bamar, to the Tai Shan, to the Austro-Asiatic Mon.

The Muslim religion of the Rohingya also enforces a stronger divergence from the majority religion than the Hindu background of other South Asians in Burma. Though most Indians left Burma in the years after independence, a substantial number have remained. The ethnographic literature I’ve seen indicates that many have re-identified as Theravada Buddhist, though no doubt maintaining many Hindu customs and practices within the community. This is not that difficult when you consider that Burmese Buddhism has many indigenous and Hindu influences already. Additionally, Hinduism and Buddhism are connected traditions, and arguably exhibit a level of commensurability that makes identity switching less stressful for both individuals and communities.

– They are perceived to relatively recent migrants to the Arakan coast from Bengal, and so not an indigenous ethnic community within Burma. Note that there are Muslim communities, even within Arakan, which are not Rohingya, which are recognized as indigenous. Not only are they perceived to be migrants, but their numbers threaten the dominance of the Rakhine people of the region.

In highlighting these elements I’ve suggesting that the Rohingya are arguably the most marginalized group in Burma. There are other Muslims ethnicities in Burma, but most are not demographic threats, derive from attested older migration events, and have intermarried with local populations so that the physical differences are not quite as salient. There are Christian minorities, such as the Chin, which have been targeted for persecution based on the religious differences, but the Chin are not perceived to be alien to Burma, simply unassimilated to dominant Theravada cultural complex. Additionally, there is no large racial difference between the Chin and the Theravada groups.

Much of the public debate revolves around the issue of Rohingya indigeneity or lack thereof. Though I have only modest confidence in my position, I believe that most of the Rohingya presence in Arakan dates to the period of British rule. Though the Rohingya language is not intelligible with standard Bengali, it is rather close to the dialect of southeast Bangladesh, Chittagong. My family is from Comilla, which borders the Indian state of Tripura. When I listen to Rohingya speak it’s only slightly less intelligible to me than the dialect of West Bengal (which is the basis for standard Bengali). In fact, the accent of Rohingya men is uncannily similar to what I remember from peasants in rural southeast Bangladesh when I visited in 1990!

If the Rohingya are not Bengali, they are something very close.

But the Rohingya will tell you something different. They do not self-identify as Bengalis, but as Burmese. Additionally, like some South Asian Muslims they deemphasize their South Asian origins, and create fictive extra-South Asian genealogies. It is important to note that the Rohingya do not write their language in the Bengali script. This means that their intelligentsia has no strong consciousness of being Bengali.

Earlier on I noted that mainland Southeast Asian had polities which easily transitioned to nation-states, because of the organic development of their identities. This is not true in South Asia. There is a bit of artificiality in the construction of South Asian polities (perhaps with the exceptions of Bhutan and Sri Lanka). Though South Asians no matter their identity are clearly defined and demarcated from other peoples, among themselves religion and community, rather than nationality scale ethnic identity, have been paramount.

In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author points out that a Bengali cultural identity evolved relatively slowly over the past 1,000 years. He makes the case that the Islamic character of eastern Bengal had to do with its underdeveloped state, and that land reclamation projects under the aegis of Islamic polities stamped the local peasantry who were settling the territory with the religion of the regnant order. And yet until recently the Muslim elite of Bengal was not culturally Bengali; they were Urdu speaking. The Bengali dialects of the peasantry were not prestigious, while the Bengali Renaissance was predominantly driven by upper case Hindus who helped shaped what standard Bengali became.

I will elide over the details of the emergence of a self-consciously Bengali and Muslim intelligentsia. It is something which I am only aware of vaguely, though I have seen fragments of it in my own extended family and lineage, as people from Urdu-speaking backgrounds have allowed their children to grow up speaking only Bengali, and fully assimilated to a Bengali identity without any qualification.

But the development of a Bengali and Muslim self-identity was occurring like at the same time as the ancestors of the Rohingya were pushing beyond the borders of traditional Bengali, into Arakan. Their lack of Bengali identity comes honestly because peasant identity has always been more localized and inchoate, and the Rohingya intelligentsia crystallized around other identifiers which could distance themselves from their relationship to Bengalis. In particular, the Rohingya seem more uniformly Islamic in their orientation. The female anchor for Rohingya news updates always seems to wear a headscarf, as opposed to those for Dhaka news reports.

In the short-term the killing of infants and raping of women has to stop. But these simple answers have behind them lurking deeper complexities. While agreeing upon the urgency of action now, we need to be very careful to not turn complex human beings into angels and demons. We have enough history in the recent past that that sort of model only leads to tragedy down the line, as those who we put utmost faith in fail us due to their ultimate humanity.

July 9, 2017

Our civilization’s Ottoman years

Filed under: Culture,International Affairs,international relations — Razib Khan @ 9:29 pm

Some right-wing intellectuals are wont to say that multicultural and multiracial empires do not last. This is not true. Historically there are plenty which lasted for quite a long time. Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the longest. But, though they were diverse polities modern liberal democratic sensibilities would have been offended by them. That is because these empires were ordered and centered around a hegemonic culture, with other cultures accepted and tolerated on the condition of submission and subordination.

The Ottoman example is the most stark because it was formally explicit under the millet system by the end of its history, though it naturally evolved out of Islamic conceptions of the roles of dhimmis under Muslim hegemony. For 500 years the Ottomans ruled a multicultural empire. Yes, it decayed and collapsed, but 500 years is a good run.

I bring up the Ottoman example because I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, an academic, and he brought up the idea that the seeming immiseration of the middle to lower classes in developed societies will lead to redistributive economic policies. Both of us agree that immiseration seems on the horizon, and that no contemporary political movement has a good response. But I pointed out that traditionally redistributive socialism seems most successful in relatively homogeneous societies, and the United States is not that. American society is diverse. Descriptively multicultural. There would be another likely solution.

Eleven years ago Amartya Sen wrote a piece for The New Republic which could never get published in the journal today, The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. In it he looked dimly upon the emergence of plural monoculturalism. Today plural monoculturalism is the dominant ideal of the identity politics Left, with cultural appropriation in vogue, and separatism reminiscent of the 1970s starting to come back into fashion. Against plural monoculturalism he contrasted genuine multiculturalism. I think a better word for it is cosmopolitanism.

The Ottoman ruling elite was Sunni Muslim, but it was cosmopolitan. The Sultan himself often had a Christian mother, while during the apex of the empire the shock troops were janissary forces drawn from the dhimmi peoples of the Balkans. This was a common feature of the Islamic, and before them Byzantine and Roman empires. The ruling elites exhibited a common ethos, but their origins were variegated.

Many of the Byzantine emperors were not from ethnic Greek Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (before the loss of the Anatolian territories many were of Armenian, and therefore non-Chalcedonian, origin). But the culture they assimilated to, and promoted, as the core identity of the empire was Greek-speaking and Chalcedonian, with a self-conscious connection to ancient Rome. I can give similar examples from South Asia or China. Diverse peoples can be bound together in a sociopolitical order, but it is invariably one of domination, subordination, and specialization.

But subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.

How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.

The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.

Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.

I could be wrong. I hope I am.

June 20, 2017

Democracy leads to Islamism

Filed under: Illiberalism,International Affairs,Islam — Razib Khan @ 12:36 am

The New York Times has a piece up on the rise in Islamic extremism in the Maldives, Maldives, Tourist Haven,
Casts Wary Eye on Growing Islamic Radicalism
. I want to highlight one section:

It was governed as a moderate Islamic nation for three decades under the autocratic rule of the former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But after the country made a transition to democracy in 2008, space opened up for greater religious expression, and conservative ideologies like Salafism cropped up.

Years ago in graduate school I told a friend that democracy and even economic prosperity did not monotonically lead to greater liberalism. In the long run perhaps, but in the short run it doesn’t necessarily do that at all.

Today we generally focus on the Islamic world, but there are plenty of examples in the past and in other places which suggest to us democratic populist passions can be quite illiberal. The Gordon Riots in England in the 18th century are a case where a pragmatic shift toward liberalism in regards to religious freedom for Roman Catholics triggered a Protestant populist riot. In the United States the emergence of universal white man’s suffrage during the Age of Jackson signaled the rise of a much more muscular and exclusive white supremacy in this country. In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 you see the arc of democratization tethering itself to conservative rural vote-banks which reinforce aristocratic privilege. Finally, democratic developments in Burma have seen an associated increase in Buddhist radicalism.

Eric Kauffman argues in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? that modernization, economic development, and the expansion of political representation, integrates conservative rural populations and uplifts them all the while transforming the norms of urban areas. In other words, the rural bazar melds with the urban shopping mall, and both are changed. The 1979 revolution in Iran and its aftermath has been argued to be a victory of the bazar over the Western oriented gentry. In India the rise of Hindu nationalism is an assertion of the self-confidence of sub-elites from the “cow belt” who arose to challenge the Western oriented ruling class that had dominated since the early 20th century.

When the Arab Spring was in full swing in 2011 I wrote An Illiberal People:

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

The modern Left has a very anodyne view of Islam. It denies that there is something structurally within many Islamic societies which enables their illiberalism, the religion of Islam. In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid argues that the religion itself may in some fundamental manner be inimical to the sort of secular liberal democratic society we perceive to be the terminal state of all cultures. I disagree with this view. Rather, I see in contemporary Islam the torture that Reformation era Christianity experienced attempting to navigate between an ideal of a universal church and the nascent emergence of nation-states. But in the short term both Shadi and I have the same prediction: greater democracy may lead to greater illiberalism and more repression of minorities. This an inconvenient truth for many Americans. But it may be true nonetheless.

May 28, 2017

Bitter Libyan Fruit

Filed under: International Affairs,Libya — Razib Khan @ 11:35 am

In Mary Beard’s excellent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome she describes an “empire of obedience” that emerged in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. This refers to the often ad hoc arrangements of Roman rule and hegemony which preceded the explicit imperial period, when domination was bureaucratized and formalized.

Sometimes it seems that the United States is an empire of obedience, though we do operate through formal institutions such as NATO and the IMF. There’s an ad hoc schizophrenic aspect to it all.

In Across The Chasm Of Incommensurability many of the commenters seem to be focusing Chinese susceptibility to government propaganda. But my post was in large part pointing to the fact that Americans themselves are often blinkered and biased, though we often exhibit a conceit of all knowing objectivity.

On Twitter I said the following:

People immediately thought I was alluding to the Manchester bomber. Actually I wasn’t. I was thinking about the Copts killed in Egypt (including children) by ISIS-affiliated militants with basis in Libya.

This is not a one off. Since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime Libya has been an incubator for terrorism. Its current political landscape is anarchic, with rival militias jockeying for power. Libya happens to be right next to the most populous Arab nation. This is not a good recipe for stability in the region.

Some commentators, such as Daniel Larison, have been arguing against the intervention since the get-go. But in general the media seems to have taken a policy of benign neglect toward what’s going on within Libya.

The Western powers take it upon themselves protect the people from their own governments. This is fair enough. But what Iraq showed us is that not all peoples are ready to be Jeffersonian Democrats. This is a fact.

The Roman “empire of obedience” gave way to one of direct rule. That was the only way to keep the chaos in check. Imperialism and colonialism are not fashionable today, but if Western governments keep intervening that seems the only way to keep the chaos at bay.

April 22, 2017

America’s great Saudi foreign policy sin

Filed under: International Affairs,Saudi Arabia — Razib Khan @ 9:24 pm
The future past

Periodically on my Twitter feed there is mention of the new series, The Handmaid’s Tale. The New York Times has a typical positive review. The author attempts to assert its contemporary relevance, ending with ‘the new “Handmaid’s Tale” enters the culture as its own kind of Offred-like resistance, pushing back against a reality that somehow got ahead of the show’s own imagination.’

This is not the 1980s. Or the early 2000s. The President of the United States is a nominal Christian at best. Maggie Haberman, who covers Trump for The New York States had this to say about his relationship to Mike Pence:

…When Trump and Pence were first getting to know each other, the one thing that Trump had relayed to people, according to several advisers I spoke to at the time, was that he was a little uncomfortable with how frequently Pence prayed. And Pence is fairly devout about his praying. Trump is not a serious churchgoer and in an anomaly for a presidential candidate, very rarely went to church services when he was running….

We live in an age of massive secularization, even on the conservative Right. Ergo, the rise of a post-religious Right predicated on ethnic identity, whether implicitly or explicitly. Though Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress are going to rollback a few of the victories of the cultural Left, there is no likelihood of turning back the clock on the biggest win of the last generation for that camp, gay marriage.

Also, don’t watch the series, read the book. Books are usually better. While I’m recommending reading, while Atwood’s work gets a lot of attention (it’s already been made into a film back in 1990), I want to suggest Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women for those curious about a different take on broadly similar themes. Flipping the framework of The Handmaid’s Tale on its head Sargent depicts a far future gynocracy, as opposed to a near future patriarchy. Additionally, The Shore of Women  has echoes of the bizarre 1970s film Zardoz.

I’ve always felt the Sargent is an underrated writer (also see Ruler of the Sky, a novelization of the life of Genghis Khan). Her output is not high volume, but it is high quality.

But this post is not about The Handmaid’s Tale, and the specter of an anti-feminist dystopia. Rather, it will be on the reality of an anti-feminist dystopia which exists in our world, which also happens to be religiously totalitarian and oligarchic. I am talking about the great ally of the United States of America in the Middle East, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In its broadest sketches you know exactly what I’m alluding to. The kingdom run by and for the House of Saud is a bizarre construction, juxtaposing material modernity with an ideological empire of medieval repression and control.

If there is one regime in the world which resembles ISIS in its fidelity to brutal and anti-modern norms, and the application of violence as a method to keep a population in check, it is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The legend of Saudi Arabia’s repression and infantilization of women is so well known that I need not repeat it here. Rather than view a depiction of the Republic of Gilead, I would suggest that one watch a documentary on the lives of Saudi women.

Many are aware that Saudi Arabia is complicit in de facto slavery. But did you know that Saudi Arabia officially outlawed slavery in 1962? An article from 1967, Saudi Arabian Slavery Persists Despite Ban by Faisal in 1962.

Saudi Arabia’s racism against Asian workers, especially, non-Muslims, has been extensively documented in the press. It’s a problem it shares with its neighbors. But Saudi Arabia is also a racist society toward its own citizens. An article in Foreign Policy mentions this in passing:

…Judges must all espouse the government-approved Salafi version of Islam. Blacks, who make up around 10 percent of the population, are banned from judgeships — as are women and Muslims who observe a different version of the faith — because the monarchy’s religious tradition still views blacks as slaves, other Muslims as heretics, and women as half human….

The concept of kufu or equality of status in Muslim marriages is apparently used to prevent marriages of Saudis with African (ergo, slave) ancestry with those of pure tribal ancestry.

Saudi Arabia has a very large Shia population in the eastern provinces near the Persian Gulf. The religious persecution of these Shia is arguably without parallel even in the Middle East, as they live under a constant state of siege and marginalization.

Modernity over Mecca

The crimes that the Saudi state commits against its subjects are legion. But Saudi Arabia has been waging a decades long cultural war against the rest of Islamic civilization. The government and the Salafi clerical hierarchy has encouraged active destruction of Islamic holy sites, because they consider these places as possible temptations for idolatry and veneration. Not only is that part of the cultural heritage of Muslims, but it is part of the cultural heritage of the world.

And the kingdom does not just commit crimes against its own. The vast majority of 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. The Saudi intervention in Yemen has turned out to be a humanitarian disaster. Saudis were present in the top leadership of Al-Qaeda, and they are reportedly prominent as part of the foreign fighter contingents in ISIS. They were instrumental in the suppression of the protest movement in Bahrain.

This litany is to reiterate that one of the closest allies of the United States is a very nasty regime. Women are second class citizens. Non-Muslims can not even become citizens. Shia are second class citizens. The state is run by, and for, an oligarchy of Saudi princes. It engages in acts of destruction against the collective heritage of the human race. It bankrolls military assaults on neighboring countries, and its citizens in their private capacities have been the financiers of terror international for a generation.

And yet this is America’s great ally. This bond goes back to 1945, when FDR and the king of Saudi Arabia met. During the Cold War the Saudis were a pro-Western regime in the great game of powers, despite the fact that the values which they held to be true and right were the antithesis of everything the West had become and aspired to. The Saudi-American connection remained despite disagreements over Israel and the 1970s oil crisis.

The Saudi state is not a conventional nation-state, it is a family owned corporation. Operationally the king is not an absolute monarch because the oligarchy needs to have buy-in. There are thousands of princes, though power is not equitably distributed. The personal nature of Saudi rule extends to its relationship to the United States: the Saudis have clearly ingratiated themselves with the American power elite through their financial generosity and business opportunities which are possible.

But it is not just the ruling caste, but the courtiers as well who have been captured, How Saudi Arabia captured Washington:

This contributes, they said, to a practice in Washington whereby the bad behavior of other Middle East states — particularly US adversaries such as Iran — receive heavy attention and debate. But bad behavior by Gulf allies — human rights abuses, opposition to democracy movements, foreign policy actions that often undercut US interests — while far from ignored are discussed with less frequency and vigor.

In other words, one explanation for the robustness of the American-Saudi relationship may not simply be geopolitical alignment of interests, but the powerful personal incentives that the American ruling class and intelligensia have been given by the Saudi ruling elite. This is a business opportunity that the American ruling class can’t overlook.

Public execution in Saudi Arabia

My own attitude is that there are cases and instances where the United States must ally with unpalatable regimes. I am not a neoconservative or liberal internationalist. Humanitarian regimes emerge through an organic process; imposition by fiat usually causes more problems than they solve. But the American rhetorical stance against their adversaries as ‘dictatorial’ or ‘illiberal’ or ‘undemocratic’ is shown to be hypocritical by the fastness of close ties to Saudi Arabia. Between “friends” some religious oppression, sexual apartheid, and familial oligarchy are clearly acceptable, they have been for over 70 years. The friendship is strong enough to withstand the reality that Saudi nationals by and large were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that Saudi Arabia has been funding radicalism across the world for decades.

When American politicians and public thinkers take high-toned moralistic line they seem ludicrous and absurd to well informed non-American observers. Total consistency is impossible, but when Americans inveigh as the “totalitarian mullahs” in Iran, many non-Americans just shake their heads when they observe that across the Persian Gulf is a regime of a far nastier bent in relation to what it puts its people through. And that regime is our close ally.

Unpalatable alliances do not entail one to abandon all principles, and even humanitarian rhetoric. But, they do enjoin upon one a bit more self-awareness in one’s self-righteous condemnation of the behavior of adversaries.

January 14, 2012

The extraordinary sex ratio of our age

Filed under: Culture,International Affairs,Sex Ratio — Razib Khan @ 9:32 pm

The New Atlantis has a nice piece, The Global War Against Baby Girls. It’s relatively heavy on charts and maps, so I recommend it (yes, it has a particular ideological perspective, but that’s really not consequential, as I assume most readers do not favor skewed sex ratios either). There’s nothing too surprising in it (assuming you won’t be surprised by the finding that in many societies there is a correlation between economic development and higher rates of sex selective abortion). But it’s thorough and highlights the complexities of social dynamics well.


The author notes that Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner hypothesized that a sex imbalance should lead to an increase in the status and value of women. This is a classic expectation that systems go back to equilibrium, and dovetails well with what we know from biology, where sex ratios tend to cycle in a meta-stable manner around balance in many species. But the empirical reality is a little more murky. Instead of a rise in the “status” of women there have been regions of China where women are further commoditized, and turned into an item for purchase and sale. This is probably not what Becker and Posner had in mind, though it might follow the letter of their prediction if not the spirit. Additionally, social systems are complex enough that they may take a tortuous and circuitous route back toward equilibrium.

I will also add two points, one minor, and one not as minor. The author suggests that Vietnam is not a Confucian society, but a Buddhist one. This is somewhat misleading. Though not nearly as Confucian as Korea, Vietnamese high culture did mimic aspects of Chinese state ideology to some extent, including introducing a Confucian scholar-administrative element. Vietnam is arguably more Sinic than Japan, having been under Chinese rule, and being directly tributary, for much of its history. A bigger point is that sex imbalance ratios are a matter of class and globalization. As hundreds of millions of lower class Chinese men reach maturity without the means to enter into a monogamous relationship with Chinese women, they will do what marginalized South Korean men have been doing: look to Southeast Asia. This means that Southeast Asian men without means will themselves be lacking in partners. A similar phenomenon has occurred in India, where women from eastern states have migrated to Punjab to marry men who can not find partners in the local region. One can not understand the sex imbalance story without considering its entailment: the great migration of tens of millions of women from poor societies to the the lower rungs of wealthier societies.

October 29, 2011

In it for the long run

Filed under: International Affairs,Libya — Razib Khan @ 12:59 pm

Over the past six months we’ve seen the “Libyan revolution” stall and then succeed. There’s no doubt that the late Libyan dictator was a marginally sane megalomaniac. That being said, he’d been on better behavior over the past 10 years, dismantling his nuclear program for example. I can see the logic in wanting to overthrow him though, there’s a lot of built up historical memory in relation to the various terrorist groups he’s funded in Europe, as well as actions like bombing of Pan Am 103. But is anyone really surprised when things like this occur:

It was just a passing reference to marriage in a leader’s soberly delivered speech, but all week it has unsettled women here as well as allies abroad.

In announcing the success of the Libyan revolution and calling for a new, more pious nation, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, also seemed to clear the way for unrestricted polygamy in a Muslim country where it has been limited and rare for decades.

It looked like a sizable step backward for women at a moment when much here — institutions, laws, social relations — is still in play after the end of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42 years of authoritarian rule.

In his speech, Mr. Abdel-Jalil declared that a Qaddafi-era law that placed restrictions on multiple marriages, which is a tenet of Islamic law, or Shariah, would be done away with. The law, which stated that a first wife had to give permission before others were added, for instance, had kept polygamy rare here.

“This law is contrary to Shariah and must be stopped,” Mr. Abdel-Jalil told the crowd, vowing that the new government would adhere more faithfully to Shariah. The next day he reiterated the point to reporters at a news conference: “Shariah allows polygamy,” he said. Mr. Abdel-Jalil is known for his piety.


The Libyan nation is a pretty religious one. Even the women who oppose polygamy out of straightforward self-interest admit its religious validity: ‘Rehab Zehany, 20, who said Mr. Abdel-Jalil was merely following the dictates of the Koran, added, when asked if she would accept her husband taking a second wife: “Of course not! I would kill him!”’ As I’ve asserted many times: attitudes considered extreme or benighted in the West are relatively widespread in much of the Islamic world. When you democratically empower people who have these attitudes, you’re going to get some sloppy regress back to positions that in the West might be considered backward. Some Americans do garnish their arguments about public policy with references to the Bible, but they’re in a minority. Not so in many of these Middle Eastern Muslim nations.

Consider Tunisia, where relatively milquetoast Islamists just came to power. Tunisia Liberals See a Vote for Change, Not Religion:

The message to Islamists, he added, was: “ ‘We are for Islam to be the religion of the state, but you must be very cautious. We are not going to give up our fight for civil freedoms.’ I am profoundly convinced that we can promote human rights and women’s rights, etc., without fighting against Islamists.”

Observe that self-described liberals in Tunisia want Islam to be the religion of the state! Having a state religion isn’t necessarily incompatible with democratic liberalism (e.g., Norway). But in general in most societies which are democratically liberal the secularists are not proponents of an established state religion. I am moderately optimistic that Tunisia can make a transition toward a pluralistic democracy, because it doesn’t seem that the religious conservatives are the overwhelming majority, and so could not impose their vision without major backlash and possible revolt from the more liberal segment of society. This may not be the case in far less developed nations, such as Egypt.

As far as Libya goes, it might be best to avert our eyes. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives don’t seem to have learned anything from the past 10 years of American foreign policy intervention in their hearts. They see only the immediate justice that they can mete out before their face, and don’t think about medium to long term consequences. They saw the revolution in Libya as a clean abstraction. But the past 6 months have seen something of a ‘race war’, as anti-Qaddafi forces turn against black Libyans and Sub-Saharan Africans who were favored by the old regime. The future may see the rise of a conservative illiberal democracy. That’s not the end of the world by any means, but people should have had their eyes open to the range of possibilities beforehand.

May 13, 2011

Osama Bin Laden ‘extensive’ porn collection?

Filed under: International Affairs,Osama bin Laden — Razib Khan @ 1:40 pm

This is happening. Pornography found in bin Laden hideout:

The pornography recovered in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive, according to the officials, who discussed the discovery with Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The officials said they were not yet sure precisely where in the compound the pornography was discovered or who had been viewing it. Specifically, the officials said they did not know if bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the materials.

Three other U.S. officials familiar with evidence gathered during investigations of other Islamic militants said the discovery of pornography is not uncommon in such cases.

One issue I’ve noticed personally with some conservative Muslims is that their threshold for what is ‘pornographic’ is different from those of typical Westerners. I have an uncle who is a member of Tablighi Jamaat who considers the outfits worn by ballerinas to be pornographic and instances of crass nudity. I do wonder if outbreaks of extreme sexual deviance and psychopathy, such as the notorious Saudi gang rape, might be as much due to the peculiar collapse of what seem clear and distinct categories to us, as much as garden-variety repression. A ...

May 7, 2011

The End of Trust: Hawk & Dove

Filed under: International,International Affairs — Razib Khan @ 1:26 am

In the mid-90s in the wake of The End of History and the Last Man Francis Fukuyama wrote Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity. Trust to some extent has a chicken & egg problem. High trust societies can overcome coordination problems which block social and economic development. A high level of social trust often results in positive spillover effects, which generate economic growth and broad based prosperity, which then boosts the levels of trust even further. In 2008-2009 I suggested that the biggest long term impact of the late great “financial crisis” is that many Americans no longer believe that doing well is an outcome of doing good. More accurately perhaps in many corrupt societies the presumption is that the path to wealth is itself a venal journey where all moral principles must be devoured by the will to power.


As a practical matter I understand and accepted the need to dampen the shocks of the impending financial doom in the wake of the 2008 crisis. But my attitude toward American capital has changed irrevocably. I know others who have experienced the same emotional flip. ...

February 15, 2011

Culture differences matter (even within Islam)

Filed under: Democracy,Egypt,International Affairs,Islam,Politics,Religion,Turkey — Razib Khan @ 12:27 pm

I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.

Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at mostfew percent, with ~1% often given as ...

February 8, 2011

The neo-Malthusian petro-kings

Filed under: International Affairs,Malthusianism,Oil,Saudi Arabia — Razib Khan @ 10:18 pm

One of the major problems with natural scientists when they “project” into the future they often do not take into account the power of innovation to change the fundamental parameters of the game. I believe this was part of the issue at the heart of the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager. Though Julian Simon was untutored in many aspects of natural science, he did comprehend the recent economic history of the world, which has seen a break with the shackles of the iron laws of Malthus. Those laws have been operative for all of human history until the mid-19th century, when Britain started to become the first nation which was a clear exception to the pattern (some may argue that the Dutch pre-figured the English case, but this seems to be debatable).

There are two major changes which Thomas Malthus and his contemporaries (including economists such as David Ricardo) could not anticipate. First, that the rate of innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries would simply surpass anything that the world had seen before. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization Bryan Ward-Perkins reports that the pollutants which are the byproducts of industrial activity did not ...

January 31, 2011

What do the people think?

With all the geopolitical tumult and news I was a bit curious to see what The World Values Survey could tell us about public opinion in Egypt and Tunisia. Unfortunately, Tunisia hasn’t been in any of their surveys, though Egypt has. So I thought it might be interesting to compare the USA, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, for wave 5, which occurred in the mid-2000s. The main thing I took away from the exercise is to reflect that Americans are a more equivocal people than I had expected. Many of the questions have a 1 to 10 scale, and I’m providing the most extreme answers. So the low fractions for Americans for some questions point to a relative moderation on some topics…which is kind of weird when you are asking whether “People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy.” Since that’s the definition of democracy broadly construed anything below a 10 out of 10 seems strange to me.

(Control + should increase font-size if it is too small)



USA Sweden Turkey Egypt Iraq Religion “very important” 47 9 75 95 96 Politics “very important” 11 16 13 9 37 Family life “very important” 95 92 99 98 96 Most people can be trusted 39 68 5 19 41 Satisfied with life (10 out of 10) 7 12 21 11 3 Great deal of control of life (10 out of 10) 17 16 24 14 9 Men have more ...

August 16, 2010

China is #2

Filed under: China,International Affairs — Razib Khan @ 1:35 am

China Passes Japan as Second-Largest Economy:

After three decades of spectacular growth, China passed Japan in the second quarter to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States, according to government figures released early Monday.

The milestone, though anticipated for some time, is the most striking evidence yet that China’s ascendance is for real and that the rest of the world will have to reckon with a new economic superpower.

The recognition came early Monday, when Tokyo said that Japan’s economy was valued at about $1.28 trillion in the second quarter, slightly below China’s $1.33 trillion. Japan’s economy grew 0.4 percent in the quarter, Tokyo said, substantially less than forecast. That weakness suggests that China’s economy will race past Japan’s for the full year.

Lots of prose. Here’s another way to explore relationships, via Google Data Explorer.


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